Reasons to be optimistic about Phil Hughes

You don’t have to wait one month and eight days for pitchers and catchers report to hear about Phil Hughes. It’s pretty obvious what he’ll say: “I’m in the best shape of my life.” After a disappointing 2011 season, in which he got hurt and showed diminished stuff when healthy, Hughes took a head-first dive into his off-season training regimen. He has worked out at Athlete’s Performance, the same place he spent the 2009-2010 off-season. That will help him avoid what the Yankees term fat camp in spring training, but will it bring actual results?

We’ve seen plenty of players report to camp in phenomenal shape and then fail to deliver. Why, then, should we think that Hughes will miraculously return to form? On Sunday Moshe tempered expectations for Hughes, but I’m a bit more optimistic. There are a few reasons to think that he can hold down a middle of the rotation spot in 2012.

His 2010 workload

It’s easy to cite Hughes’s 2010 workload as one reason he failed in 2011. His previous innings high was 146 innings, and that came in 2006 — at A and AA, no less. But really, innings aren’t the greatest gauge here. Minor league games simply aren’t as intense as major league ones. In addition, Hughes had a relatively easy time finishing those 146 innings. He faced 558 batters that year, or 3.82 per inning. During his 2010 campaign he faced 730 batters in 176.1 innings, or 4.14 per inning. That’s quite a bit of added stress, especially for a guy who hadn’t faced that many batters in four years.

Then we get to the postseason. Not only did Hughes add another 15.2 innings to his ledger, but he struggled in those innings. While he did dispose of the Twins with relative ease, he faltered against the Rangers. All told he faced 71 batters in the postseason, or 4.53 per inning. The stressors add up.

His 2010 recovery period

Not only did Hughes throw far more innings in 2010 than he ever had previously, but he pitched deeper into the season as well. While he did pitch in the Arizona Fall League in 2008, that came after a long layoff during the season, in which he threw only 70 innings between the majors and the minors. The stress wasn’t nearly as great as it was in 2010, when he had already far surpassed his previous workload limits.

The baseball season takes a toll on every player. Pitchers abuse their entire bodies all season, repeatedly throwing a baseball with maximum effort with an unnatural motion. After the season players need rest. Some vets might be able to get by with just a few weeks on the shelf, but younger players unaccustomed to these workloads, might need more. Again, Hughes put his body through considerably more stress in 2010 than he ever had previously in his life. And then he had a short off-season to recover and recondition.

Just look at Cole Hamels. In 2007 he threw 183.1 innings, facing 743 batters. In 2008 he threw 227.1 innings and faced 914 batters in the regular season, and then upped that total to 252.1 innings and 1,045 batters with his postseason performance. That’s 302 more batters faced than ever before in his career — or 41 percent of his previous innings high. In 2009 he saw a drop-off in his performance. It wasn’t to Hughes’s degree, but different bodies respond in different ways. Yet Hamels rebounded for his best year yet in 2010, and then topped that in 2011.

His curveball

From the 2007 Baseball America scouting report on Hughes, when they rated him the No. 4 prospect in the game:

Hughes’ greatest accomplishment as a pro has been to forsake his slider in favor of a knockout curveball, which is more of a strikeout pitch and produces less stress on his arm. It’s a true power breaking ball that sits in the low 80s with 1-to-7 break. Club officials call it the best in the system because Hughes can throw it for quality strikes or bury it out of the zone, and because he uses the same arm slot and release point he uses for his fastball.

Yet by 2009 he was working more with a spike curve, a la Mike Mussina and A.J. Burnett. The problem is that it didn’t fit with his repertoire. He didn’t throw it particularly hard like Burnett, and he didn’t have many, if any, other pitches to keep hitters off balance, like Mussina. He has since changed back to the straight curve that earned him so much praise. It’s no surprise that it didn’t make much of a difference last season, since he implemented it mid-season. But with an off-season and spring training to work on it, perhaps he can use it to his advantage.

Baby steps

Hughes wasn’t exactly good after returning from the DL, pitching to a 4.67 ERA in 61.2 innings over 11 starts. He didn’t miss many bats either, striking out just 42. But he did do a few things well. For instance, he limited opponents to just five home runs, or 0.73 per nine. He also kept the Yankees in many of those games; six of those 11 starts were considered quality starts. Again, the Yankees don’t need Hughes to be an ace or a No. 2. They need him to be a serviceable middle of the rotation arm. Piling up the quality starts is an easy way to accomplish that.

To expect Hughes will return to form in 2012 is foolish. Little in his last 18 months of work suggests he’ll ever approach his ceiling. But we can still look at the situation and see some optimism. The problem, as Moshe related on Sunday, is that the optimism is for a mid-rotation starter rather than an elite one. But at this point, we’d take it from Hughes. If a few things break right for him, we just might see that in 2012.

The Yankees And Pace

Robbie doesn't like a pitch, time to go for a walk. (Chris Pasatieri/Getty Images)

If you’ve been following the Yankees for long enough, you’re well aware that their games usually take an eternity to play. They have patient batters who work deep counts and an offense that scores a lot of runs, and playing in the AL East means they face a bunch of teams built the same way. More pitching changes are made these days made as bullpens become more specialized as well, and that lengthens the game quite a bit. The Red Sox had the longest average time of game at 3:13 in 2011, and the Yankees were second at 3:08. That’s a lot of baseball.

Although we have a general idea of why the Yankees played such long games in 2011, I wanted to get an idea of who specifically was responsible. To do so, I used the “pace” data available at FanGraphs. It’s compiled from PitchFX and tracks the time between pitches within a single plate appearance, so not the time between the last pitch of one plate appearance and the first of the next. The average pace across MLB was 21.6 seconds last year, with both leagues right there (AL was 21.6, NL was 21.7). Let’s break it down into the three major components of the team…

Starting Lineup

For the most part, we can deduce who the culprits are. Nick Swisher always seems to take his sweet time between pitches, as does Derek Jeter. Mark Teixeira doesn’t spend much time fidgeting around between pitches, and neither does Curtis Granderson. Let’s look at the pace data…

(min. 350 PA for ’11 and 1,000 PA for ’09-’11)

Cano is second only to Carlos Pena in both samples, and not by a small margin either. Pena leads him by 1.6 seconds in 2011 and 1.9 seconds from 2009-2011. That’s pretty nuts, the guy takes nearly half-a-minute between pitches. Cano ranking so high surprised me, but it makes sense when you stop to think about it. He’s always walking around the catcher and umpire and fixing his gloves between pitches. It makes sense. The rest is as expected, with Jeter, Gardner, and Swisher ranking well up there and everyone else further down the pack.

For what it’s worth, there’s basically no correlation between pace and wOBA. Using the ’09-’11 data, I get an R-squared of 0.0898 when I plot the two stats against each other. An R-squared of one means a perfect correlation while an R-squared of zero means no correlation. It’s worth noting that several former Yankees — specifically Jerry Hairston Jr. and Hideki Matsui — also rank pretty highly in terms of 2009-2011 pace. There are 234 players in our 2011 pool and 225 players in our 2009-2011 pool, just so you know.

Rotation

I don’t think there is anything more annoying in baseball than a pitcher who takes an eternity between pitches. Josh Beckett drew some ire last year for his painfully slow pace, and Steve Trachsel was not-so-affectionately known as The Human Rain Delay for the same reason. Rafael Betancourt also has a reputation for taking his sweet time between pitches. Let’s see where the Yankees starters ranked in 2011…

(min. 100 IP for ’11 and 300 IP for ’09-’11)

Unsurprisingly, the slowest working pitcher in baseball last year was Beckett at 26.9 seconds. In fact, the four slowest working pitchers last year all have Red Sox ties: Beckett, Brad Penny, Erik Bedard, Jon Lester. Penny is a few years removed from his stint in Boston, however.

The Yankees’ five starters last year are pretty high up there on the leaderboard, which consists of 137 players. Colon and Nova didn’t qualify for the 2009-2011 player pool, which is 126 guys deep. Two of the three Yankees that did are really high up there, and it’s worth mentioning that former Yankees hurler Javy Vazquez is at 22.8 seconds while Andy Pettitte is at 21.3 seconds. Click the link below the table, and you’ll see that the top of the pace leaderboard is dominated by AL East pitchers, which I doubt is a coincidence. The whole lotta grinding out at-bats happens in the division.

The old adage says that a pitcher who works quickly helps keep his defense on their toes, but it doesn’t show up in ERA (R-squared of 0.0006 using ’09-’11 data). That doesn’t mean it’s not true though, the defense may very well be more “into the game” with a quick pitcher, but it hasn’t yielded any significant benefits in recent years. Just FYI, the R-squared between pace and FIP is 0.00007. For all intents and purposes, that’s zero correlation.

Bullpen

Before I dug up the bullpen data, my hunch is that relievers would have a slower pace than starters because it’s the late innings and there are often men on base; these guys then to take their sweet time and think things through before each pitch. Turns out I was right in terms of the league average (by about two seconds), but not as far as the Yankees go…

(min. 30 IP for ’11 and 90 IP for ’09-’11)

Our player pools are 202 and 183 players deep for 2011 and 2009-2011, respectively. For whatever reason, the Yankees bullpen works substantially quicker than its peers and at about the same pace as the team’s starters. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. It could be Mariano Rivera‘s influence on those around him, could be a team philosophy, who knows. The guys they’ve brought in from other teams were also quick workers, so maybe it’s just dumb luck.  That’s pretty interesting though, and it’ll take some work to determine why this is the case and if it’s actually helping any.

The slowest paced reliever over the last three years wasn’t Betancourt (he was second), it was Jonathan Papelbon at a whopping 31.7 seconds. That seems rather excessive. Papelbon and Betancourt (30.8) were the only relievers over 30 seconds while Jonathan Broxton was at 30.0 seconds on the nose.

* * *

Although the Yankees and Red Sox averaged the longest games — and the Mariners averaged the shortest at 2:46 — there was basically no correlation between average time of game and wins in 2011 (R-squared is just 0.066). Some teams just play longer games, and the Yankees are one of those teams thanks to guys like Cano, Swisher, Gardner, Sabathia, and Burnett. Are long games irritating? Sure, but they come with the territory at the moment, so just enjoy the extra baseball.

Remaining one-year-deal starters (or what’s left of them)

(Photo by J. Meric/Getty)

A few weeks ago Tim Dierkes of MLBTR noted that there were still a handful of one-year stopgap starting pitchers on the market. Between the relative lack of activity on the Yankees’ part along with the team standing to benefit from added rotation depth (and not wanting to overpay for said depth), myself and others have spent a lot of time during the last calendar year trying to identify sensible low-cost options for the team. Of course, as our own Mike recently astutely noted:

At this point, if the Yankees aren’t going to bring in someone clearly better than Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia, they’re just wasting their time. The A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, and David Phelps group is more than capable of filling those fourth and fifth spots.”

I’m very interested to see what Phelps (who I’ll be taking an in-depth look at on Monday), Noesi, and Warren might be able to do given the opportunity; however, this being the offseason and all I wanted to take one more pass through the unsigned names to see whether any of ‘em may make a modicum of sense. I began drafting this post two days ago; before I could even get through a couple of paragraphs a handful of names on my initial list quickly came off the board, including Aaron Cook (signed by the Red Sox to a minor-league deal), Paul Maholm (signed by the Cubs to a one-year, $4.25 million deal with a club option) and Wei-Yin Chen (somewhat inexplicably signed by the Orioles to a three-year deal that appears to have evaluated him on what he did prior to 2011).

Anyway, by my count here are the remaining guys presumably in line for one-year or minor-league contacts:

Bartolo Colon
Jeff Francis
Jon Garland
Rich Harden
Hiroki Kuroda
Roy Oswalt
Brad Penny
Joel Pineiro
Joe Saunders
Kyle Davies
Zach Duke
Livan Hernandez
Kevin Millwood
Ross Ohlendorf
Tim Wakefield
Chris Young

And here’s a link to a customized leaderboard I created on Fangraphs showing how they performed in 2011. There isn’t anything all that surprising in here; if you’re a believer in Bartolo Colon having another 2011 in him he’s pretty clearly the most appealing option of the bunch, having been the most valuable per fWAR, posting the third-best K/9, 5th-best BB/9 and 3rd-best FIP and xFIP.

Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda of course also look appealing, but as we know the Yankees remain uninterested unless either righty’s asking price drops substantially. The only other remotely appealing player in my book on this list is Rich Harden, who I covered extensively back in November, but his propensity to give up the long ball combined with legitimate health concerns are apparently outweighing the mouth-watering strikeout rate and continuing to keep suitors away.

For depth purposes, I still wouldn’t mind seeing the Yanks take a flier on Harden — who’s barely merited a mention on MLBTR this winter —  if his price ends up being near the $1.5M deal he signed with Oakland last season, although at this point he doesn’t pass the “better than Nova and Garcia” test, nor is he an obvious upgrade over old friend Bartolo. Ultimately, if the Yankees do decide to pass on a Colon reunion and asking prices for others remain unfavorable, it would appear that their best move would indeed be to utilize the rotation depth they have at AAA for the 2012 season.

Sorting out the Triple-A Scranton roster

The everyday catcher at Triple-A, finally. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Now more than ever, clubs are using their Triple-A affiliate as an extension of the big league roster. The Yankees are no different, so you’ll see some spare parts filling out the Triple-A Scranton roster around the actual prospects his summer. There will be an extra outfielder and infielder, as well as a horde of spare arms. I don’t mean the kind of arms with long-term potential, I mean the disposable kind that can come up, get thrown to the wolves for a few days, then be cast aside and released. The Buddy Carlyle, Brett Tomko, and Amaury Sanit types. Those guys serve a purpose, albeit a small one.

The core of this year’s Triple-A team will be a deep pitching staff, particularly the starters. If everyone makes it through Spring Training healthy and the Yankees don’t need any of their young guys on the Opening Day roster, they’ll have to figure out how to squeeze six starters into five Triple-A rotation spots. The bullpen figures to boast a few power arms and a few savvy veterans, some of whom we’ll surely see at some point this coming summer.

Since we’ve sufficiently analyzed the big league roster to death, let’s take a second to look at what the Triple-A roster might look like when the season begins. Remember, it’s only a 24-man roster down in Triple-A, so there’s one less spot to play around with. Considering how infrequently the 25th man plays in the bigs, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Position Players (12)

Everyday Lineup: C Austin Romine, 1B Jorge Vazquez, 2B Corban Joseph, SS Ramiro Pena, 3B Brandon Laird, OF Colin Curtis, OF Dewayne Wise, OF Cole Garner
Bench: C Gus Molina, IF Kevin Russo, OF Dan Brewer, UTIL Jayson Nix

The DH will rotate in all likelihood, allowing Russo, Brewer and Nix to get semi-regular at-bats. Laird figures to see the majority of his time at third base, but he’ll also play some first base and left field. Curtis and Garner will see time in all three outfield spots, as will Brewer off the bench. JoVa will get the occasional start at third. It’s all about developing and maintaining versatility for these guys.

Speaking of Vazquez, there have been unconfirmed rumors that he may flee for Japan (where he’d make considerably more money), which would open the door for someone like Bradley Suttle or Cody Johnson to get their first taste of life above Double-A. A minor league free agent could also be an option for that spot, perhaps someone like Dan Johnson or even Nick Johnson. That would be kinda neat.

The two wildcards here are Justin Maxwell and Chris Dickerson, both of whom are out of minor league options and will need to clear waivers to be sent down at any point next season. If one of those guys manages to make it through waivers and starts the season in Triple-A, it’ll likely push Brewer back to Double-A. It would shock me if both clear, but in that case the Yankees would probably just release Wise and send Brewer back to Tripe-A.

Reegie Corona is still in the organization after finally being taken off the 40-man roster a few months ago, and he’s a prime phantom DL candidate. That means he’ll remain with the team but not be on the active roster, instead stashed away on the DL with a fake injury and ready to be activated whenever someone else actually does get hurt. Doug Bernier could be destined for the same fate as well.

Pitching Staff (12)

Another Opening Day start for Phelps? (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Rotation: Hector Noesi, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, David Phelps, Adam Warren
Bullpen: D.J. Mitchell, George Kontos, Mike O’Connor, Matt Daley, Kevin Whelan, Adam Miller, ???

I’m working under the assumption that none of these guys will be needed in the big league rotation when the regular season begins, so everyone will get jammed in Triple-A. That creates a bit of a logjam because we’ve got six starters for five spots. Brian Cashman indicated during the Winter Meetings that Noesi will start somewhere (either in Triple-A or the bigs) in 2012, and they’re very unlikely to bump either Banuelos or Betances into the bullpen or back to Double-A. That leaves two spots for Phelps, Warren, and Mitchell.

As part of last week’s Yankees Top Ten Prospects Chat (subs. req’d), Baseball America’s John Manuel said Mitchell is “still viewed as more of a reliever long-term inside the organization,” mentioning him as a candidate for a “Ramiro Mendoza kind of swing role.” I called him a relief candidate back before the 2010 season, so it’s probably not a terrible time to make the conversion given that he has a full year of Triple-A starting under his belt. He can still work multiple innings out of the bullpen, and whenever one of the starters gets inevitably called up, he can step right into the rotation. Assuming he isn’t the one called up, of course.

Kontos and Whelan are the veterans in the bullpen, at least in the sense that they were with the team last year. The latter figures to again serve as closer. O’Connor and Daley are on minor league contracts and are ticketed for Triple-A, as is Miller barring an absolutely dominant camp and a surprise spot on the big league team’s Opening Day roster. I’m fairly certain that he’ll get some regular innings in the minors before being considered for a big league spot later on during the summer, assuming he pitches well enough to deserve the look.

That ??? bullpen spot is very much up for grabs. It could go to Ryan Pope, who started last year at this level, or possibly even Pat Venditte. Craig Heyer and Cory Arbiso are also possibilities. Hideki Okajima is on a minor league deal, but at the moment I expect him to make the Yankees roster to open the season. There’s always the minor league free agent pool, as the Yankees could bring back someone like Josh Schmidt or Eric Wordkemper, or go for some new blood instead. There is no shortage of arms still available on the open market (RHP, LHP).

Update: Cesar Cabral is also a Triple-A relief option, albeit in a roundabout way. Since he’s a Rule 5 Draft pick for the second time, he can elect free agency rather than be returned to his original team (the Red Sox) if the Yankees don’t want him. In that case, they can simply re-sign him and send him down. The Diamondbacks did the exact same thing with former Yankees farmhand Zach Kroenke.

* * *

The neat thing about Triple-A baseball is that even if the Opening Day roster ends up looking like it does in this post, it won’t matter a month into the season. There will be injuries, promotions, demotions, veterans opting out of contracts, you name it. The roster turnover at this level is insane, upwards of 70 transactions a year. It’s not enough to be 25 men deep these days, the Yankees need this depth tucked away in Triple-A to serve as viable replacements for those “just in case” moments.

Improving the Yankee Stadium experience

When Opening Day rolls around in a few months, it will be the fourth at the new Yankee Stadium. Christened with a World Series in its first year, the new Stadium has simply become a comfortable home. I haven’t forgotten the old park; considering how much time I spent there during my teenage years, I never will. But the new place is where I got to see a lot of games every summer and will be for most of the rest of my life.

That said, the new stadium is far from perfect. I miss the intimacy and vastness of the Tier level, and I miss the view into Monument Park. The current home is a temple to the gaudiness of the Yankees, and it’s easy for a guy who doesn’t want to go broke attending baseball to feel a bit marginalized from the field.

As the seasons have marched on, the Yankees haven’t really done much to the new Yankee Stadium. They painted the overbearing concrete in the bleachers a darker shade of blue and made some minor upgrades, but as the Mets lower the fences and try to bring some semblance of their own history to their new stadium, the Yankees are content with what they’ve built. They could make some changes though, and as Opening Day inches closer, I have my own wishlist for the new house.

1. Mystique and Aura in the Stands
Once upon a time at the old park, it used to be possible to roam the stadium before the game with, by and large, free reign of the place. At a certain time, ushers would gently ask fans to head to their seats, but autograph hounds could stake out batting practice. At the new park, the general atmosphere in the lower seating bowls is one somewhere between antipathy and hostility. Guards will promptly sweep out people who aren’t where they should be a good 90 minutes before first pitch, and forget about ever crossing the moat that separates most fans from the field.

The Yankees needn’t compromise on their high-ticket packages to make the place a bit more welcoming for those who just want a close-up of the field. Calling off the hounds earlier on and making the fans more welcome would go a long way toward instilling the stadium with its own set of mystique and aura. We’re fans. We want to be there, and we’re not out to cause trouble.

2. Better Food
For all the promise of better food the new stadium brought with it, the non-exclusive dining options are your run-of-the-mill stadium stands. The hot dog buns aren’t much, and the specialty stands feature bland and overpriced items with ever-shrinking portions. The debut of Parm in the Great Hall was a fantastic start last season, but with Shake Shack and Blue Smoke headlining Citi Field, our ballpark in the Bronx has a long way to go. The crab legs I had that one time in the Legends Suites were pretty damn good though.

3. Monument Cave
At the old stadium, Monument Park and the retired numbers were a point of pride for the Yankees. They were visible throughout the stadium and during the game. At the new park, the monuments are buried beneath a sports bar and are covered for first pitch. The Yanks’ rich history has been rendered an afterthought, and we espy only glimpses of the retired numbers. I have to think the club could flip the visitors’ bullpen with Monument Park to make it a more open-air attraction as it used to be.

4. Between-Inning Entertainment
We’ve had the same between-inning entertainment options for eons now. Yankee trivia, Who’s That Baby?, Match Game NY — the list goes on and on and on. Between that and the staid selection of stadium songs that filter over the PA system, the in-game production could use a refresh.